Some new musicians released traditional albums of impressive vitality, writes Siobhán Long
THE trouble with a permanent high is that you eventually crave a downer. That’s how it feels in the world of traditional music, where musicianship is at an all-time high. Recordings are coming fast and furious from all corners, and the debutantes are as likely to be on conversational terms with excellence as their more road-weary predecessors.
Whistle player Brian Hughes cut a sharp pathway through a sparkling repertoire with his December release, Whirlwind (Cló Iar Chonnachta). It’s a collection that begs repeat visits, all the better to acclimatise the eardrums to the onslaught of pristine whistle playing. The listener’s pa- tience is repaid in spadefuls by Hughes’s microscopic attention to detail, with polymath Garry Ó Briain hammocking his playing with mandocello, keyboards and guitar.
Kila’s piper, Eoin Dillon, and Cork fiddle player Edel Sullivan are another pair of debutantes who stilled the etherwith their quietly confident solo CDs. Dillon’s The Third Twin (Kíla Records), reveals a piper whose time has come to emerge from Kíla’s crowded aural landscape. Sullivan’s In the Time Of (Claddagh) came out of nowhere but registered high on trad’s Richter scale, with its un-
cluttered fid- dle lines.
Firebrands Solas and Lúnasa are the closest we’ve come in search of a Planxty and a Bothy Band for the 21st century. Seamus Egan’s conglomerate might shift in its line-up from time to time, but Solas’s 10 birthday celebration, Reunion (Compass) captured the band’s sheer vivaciousness and magpie tendencies effortlessly. Likewise, Lúnasa elevated their trademark bass lines to yet higher plains with Sé (Compass), a snapshot of a band with an appetite every bit as voracious as it ever was for charting unknown territory.
Solas’s Winifred Horan and Mick McAuley lost little time in pursuing their own particular pathways through the tradition with the gorgeously understated Serenade (Compass). Horan’s fiddle was given free rein to stretch to its full potential on the uncluttered canvass of this duet collection.
Zoe Conway released a surprisingly stark second album, The Horse’s Tail (Tara Music). Conway’s virtuosity as a fiddler is a given, but her compositional talents were brought into sharp relief on this bare-boned recording, the highlight of which is the title track. Cathal Hayden released a superb live album as well, Live in Belfast (Gael Linn), although he’s long overdue a return visit to the recording studio to capture more of that trademark swingeing bow hand in all its acrobatic glory.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Danú’s singer and flute player, released a spellbinding solo CD, Fáinne An Lae/Daybreak (Compass), her interpretative skills hinting at a vocalist who’s barely scratched the surface. Sligo band Téada swashbuckled their way through Inné Amárach (Gael Linn) with a swathe of unlikely tune pairings, imaginatively invig- orated by arrangements that complemented but never cossetted the music in cotton wool.
The year’s unquestionable standout was as unlikely as it was long overdue. Paul Brock and Enda Scahill brought two often-maligned instruments together and let the sparks fly. Their melodeon and banjo traced intricate pathways through time-worn tunes rescued from the oblivion of their original Irish-American recordings, dating from the 1930s. As a one-time self-confessed loather of both accordion and melodeon, this hack admits that Humdinger not only raised the hairs on the back of the neck, but positively starched them in position for weeks after their first exposure.
A striking pattern in this year’s releases is the sheer volume of superb recordings emerging from Compass Records. Isn’t it interesting that it takes a Nashville-based label to capture the essence of so many of our sublime musicians in full flight?